Commentary

Gabe Kapler signals a new way, but the jury is out



After weeks of speculation, opinion, rumor milling and, finally, a little clarity, the Phillies have a new manager. Gabe Kapler will reportedly be running the show in the clubhouse in 2018.

The poor man’s explainer on Gabe Kapler is relatively straightforward: He’s an outside-the-box selection, an analytics and sports science wonk who fits nicely with the new approach driven by the Phillies’ front office. And that explainer has allowed everyone – from paid pundits to fans on social media – to sound off their opinions on the move. Some say Kapler is going to be a puppet for General Manager Matt Klentak. Others say his relative inexperience in the dugout means he’s cheap, proving the Phils’ ownership’s prudence. Some like Kapler. Others not so much. Some are wondering why the choice wasn’t Dusty Wathan, the longtime farm system manager who has helped develop nearly everyone on the current 40-man roster.

The narratives are already building, which in Philadelphia can be a dangerous thing. Moreover, the narratives are just plain dumb.

Let’s start with the fact that Kapler is not an outside-the-box selection. He’s a former major league player, a fourth outfielder type who won a ring with the 2004 Red Sox. He has previously managed; he was the helm of the 2007 class-A Greenvile Drive, which finished 58-81. Moreover, he’s a white male. If the Phillies went “outside the box,” they would’ve hired a non-white manager, or hell, maybe a woman. But they didn’t do that. A white male former player with managerial experience is not outside the box.

Plus, Kapler isn’t outside the box if you’re looking closely at what the Phillies are becoming. Gone are the days when a general manager was a silent pencil pusher and the manager, instead, was the man leading the boys into battle. Today’s big league environment is such that front offices have much louder input about the day-to-day management of the club. Klentak, a young executive making his first major hire, chose in Kapler someone with aligned thoughts about the direction of the game, a manager who can communicate to players how the organization is educating and evaluating them.

The new Phillies

So, yes, sports science is emphasized. And what that means is, more specifically, Kapler will work with players on constantly thinking about how to achieve the best results in their physical and mental workouts. Everything from what players wear to what they eat will probably be considered. Just as important, you’ll probably hear more about sports psychologists working with the Phillies. Kapler has been known to be a stout communicator, someone who can get ballplayers to think in new ways. One would surmise that communication and mental health will be important considerations of the new regime.

Then there’s analytics. From what we’ve read, Kapler is a fan of analytics, and more specifically of using the tools of sabermetrics to analyze performance. He’ll certainly consider data in his role as manager. Will he be a robot only capable of reciting statistics? Probably not. But be sure that Kapler will be talking more about sabermetrics than Pete Mackanin.

And a lot of this is coming from up high, because baseball teams are – more than ever – being run like corporations. The executives have ideas on how their organizations should be operated, so they’ll bring in managers they feel can execute their ideas, arming them with the tools necessary to succeed. Kapler, in this case, is the ideal manager for what Klentak has been promoting.

Whether you think it’s right or wrong – right now – depends on what narrative you’re already spinning. Maybe you have an aversion to young executives. Maybe you think data and analytics can’t replace on-field experience. Maybe the phrase “sports science” makes you cringe.

Comparison game

The new narrative that started, almost immediately after the news of Kapler’s hiring, is that this guy feels too much like Chip Kelly. The former Eagles head coach was a sports science disciple, turning the NovaCare facility into an expanded smoothie shop where he monitored literally everything his players did so that they could be prepared to last longer than opponents. That, plus his high-powered, lightning-quick offense, certainly helped to boost the Eagles into a division winner in Kelly’s first year.

Remember, we were all huge Kelly fans in that first year.

It was only when Kelly also took over football operations that things went quickly haywire and our opinions began to sour. But Kelly was his own man in his own scenario in an entirely different sport. Running a football team is very different from running a baseball team.

Some have also already compared Kapler to Sam Hinkie, erstwhile general manager of the 76ers, who flipped the organization on its head in an effort to set it up for maximum optionality with assets and future prospects. Again, very different man and scenario. Of course, Kapler isn’t running baseball operations here. Plus, he’ll be carrying out Klentak’s gameplan as much as managing his team. Maybe Kapler says some of the same things as Hinkie, but that just means that he’s a creative thinker.

But that’s how narratives work. We’re going to opine about this hiring for a while, comparing Kapler to a variety of other managers and executives until, at some point, time reveals the truth of this hiring.

And that will be tied to Klentak, because this is his big hire, the one that could make or break his entire tenure in Philadelphia. Today Klentak and the front office are saying Gabe Kapler is the right man for them and for this new era of Phillies baseball.

Only time – not a narrative – will tell if that’s true.

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Listen to this week’s Phillies Nation Podcast, as we talk about Kapler (as the news breaks!)

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